This was proving to be a long night. The last time I’d asked about the time, it had been six straight hours of talking, negotiating, planning, and instruction. We had started at ten twenty or so, and now it was closer to dawn than it was to dusk.
There was something reassuring about being the figure in the shadows, the member of a band or pair of assassins and investigators who fit together like clockwork. That reassurance had been turned on its head now that we were crossing the threshold.
We were no longer the unpredictable figures that were shaking the box of spiders, but now another few of the people who were making a box, choosing and gathering the spiders, and hoping that the journey that followed wouldn’t see things shaking too much.
The underlings we had recruited, a set of lieutenants who each led their own band of thugs and questionable sorts, were now gone. They went to their homes, went about their business, they talked among themselves, and each operated with their individual motivations. The workers from this particular lab and the people we had had as guards were all going home, with instructions to turn up at the usual time for work tomorrow.
Junior and the girl I’d picked out who had been wearing clothes similar to the laborers were now giving instructions to the stragglers about how to shut down the lab for the night. What needed to go where, what needed to be brought down to a simmer rather than shut off entirely, and what needed to be stored with any measure of care.
Junior was tall, his black hair parted, wearing an off-white lab coat and apron. Posie wore overalls, a shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a puffy hat with a brim that looked more like an overstuffed seat cushion than a proper hat, but at least served to let her keep her copious amounts of hair under it.
With the exception of Junior’s would-be replacement, who I had sent home, the impostors were watching and listening. Rita or Marvin would periodically ask about the names of things. It was a bit concerning that Marvin sometimes had to ask twice.
But even that task was wrapping up. The lanterns went out at various workstations and counters. Windows were shut and locked.
“…This counter is packing. I put the numbskulls on it,” Junior explained to the impostors. “Can’t screw it up, really, and this is the stage where most would try to steal product. I prefer stupid people in that position over the smart ones who don’t get caught. After everyone leaves, I check the quantities.
He rolled a jack so it slid into the pallet, then turned the wheel until it was lifted up. He pointed at the jack.
“Scale built into it. Pallets are three point six stone, these crates are six point four. Got crates specifically made to be that weight. Nice and tidy ten stone. Mental calculation on quantity of product, ninety-ninety of happy-go-lucky, we’re looking for one seventy eight and a half stone… and we’re within the allowable margins. Lid goes on…”
The girl, Posie, lifted the lid into place, then picked up a hammer in one hand and a fistful of nails in the other. She hammered the nails in with a set motion. A tap to set the nail in, then a swing to drive it home in one blow.
“Sealed. Already labeled. Ready to go out,” Junior said.
“Big crates,” Rita observed. The crates were tall enough that she could only barely look over top of the one that sat on a pallet. “A lot of…”
“Merchandise,” Junior said. “That’s the language I prefer. You can talk about merchandise in public without people raising eyebrows.”
He glanced at me, checking that I was watching.
I was watching.
“She’ll show up around the start of the workday tomorrow,” Junior said. “So remember this. Each of you at a different station, follow the process.”
“What was this station, again?” Marvin asked.
“Packing,” Junior said, patient. He shot another glance my way.
Did Junior want my approval? Or was he such a practiced sycophant that he was capable of suggesting that sentiment while he plotted to undermine me?
He was a salesman with a good mind for numbers and organization. He wasn’t just perfectly suited for this particular enterprise, but he was a gem among coals in general. Fray had found him, somehow, in this edge-of-the-world town. She had identified that glimmer of well-above-average intelligence, and she had plotted to use him.
Co-opting him was a part of my plan to steal the reins from Fray and steer her greater ploy in another direction. I didn’t know what it was for sure, but I had ideas.
“Marvin,” I said, cutting into the conversation. “What is it that you do?”
“Do? Nothing,” Marvin said. He was shorter than average for a guy, but broad across the shoulders, laden with artificial muscles. He had a beard and mustache, brown skin, and heavy eyebrows.
“You’ve done something. A good body of work like that costs money,” I said, gesturing in the direction of his upper body. “I’m trying to figure you out as a person.”
“I used to handle records in government. Taxes, census,” he said.
Half of the little group expressed some measure of surprise. I only nodded, taking that in.
“You’re a person of the written word and number?” I asked.
“Uh huh. Lost my position four or so years ago when the new mayor was elected. His son got the job. They reached out a little while back because they needed help. I was happier to see them sink.”
“Why the muscles?” Posie asked. “Change of career?”
“My girl likes this body type,” Marvin said. “If we break up, I’ll go back to the way I was, but things aren’t going that way, so I’m stuck this way, I think.”
Rita snorted. Posie smiled.
I walked over to a counter, picked up a pad of paper and pen, and walked over to the group. I handed it over to Junior.
“Write it down,” I said, as soon as the chatter over Marvin’s girlfriend had died down. I looked at Marvin. “You’ll remember better that way?”
Marvin seemed taken aback. Then he seemed to gather his bearings, realized why I’d asked, and conceded the point. He nodded.
“Great,” I said.
It took some time for Junior to figure out how to structure it. But the guy was a student.
Not the best student. Jessie had said that Leah beat Junior in the rankings. Which was odd, when I compared my assessment of their natural abilities.
He wrote the essentials down. Marvin watched over his shoulder, nodding as he went.
Rita had run out of cigarettes half an hour ago. But she’d stayed. She was interested. The others looked slightly more restless.
When Junior had finished, handing the pad over to Marvin, I decided to wrap things up. “Let’s finish here. Go home. Get a few hours of sleep, wash, eat. We’ll knock and round you up in a little while. Then payment, more payment if we succeed.”
There was palpable relief at the suggestion, from everyone but Junior.
It took a minute for the impostors to gather their coats and depart.
That made for a few more elements of a greater plan that I couldn’t wholly control or conspire with. These ones were easier to deal with. The ones I wanted to work with most seemed more excited and invested. Marvin and Rita.
The place was nearly empty, now. Junior, Posie and I were the only ones in the lab itself. The students and guards were in the lab, and Jessie was… somewhere else in the building. Possibly with a prisoner.
“So,” Junior said. He leaned against a counter. “That was impressive.”
“Which part?” I asked.
“Good question. The bit toward the end. Marvin being a man of text. You had an inkling before you asked, didn’t you?”
“People learn in different ways. The tactile, the auditory, the visual. And in different scopes, too. The master and the jack.”
“Master and Jack?” Junior asked.
“The man who does one thing and strives toward perfection with it, and the person who can do a dozen related things and translate knowledge from one to another. There are other bases to cover, other elements of learning and individual kinds of intelligence and whatever else, but- yeah.”
“I see,” Junior said.
“I’m not sure I see,” Posie said.
“You’re a chemist,” I said, “Yes?”
“I was, when I was a student,” she said.
“You’re a master, by my best judgment,” I said. “You do chemistry. You’re a tactile person. You work hands on. You like to get your hands dirty. You keep the machines running. You learn by doing, by feeling how stuff works and applying yourself to the task, improving by the practice. In audition and in the visual, your eyes glaze over. You loved the work, you hated the classes, you hated the reading and the writing, and unfortunately, even Beattle doesn’t offer a curriculum that’s lab work only.”
“That about sums it up,” she said.
“And you settled here. Foreman for a lab. And settling is the key word that you wrestle with. Your brain tells you that you’re selling yourself short, that you should be somewhere with a higher station, your heart might even echo your brain. But your gut? You know deep down that this is the sort of niche you were meant to fill.”
“Maybe,” she said.
“I get the feeling that if I cut you loose, send you to go rest, eat and groom like I did with the others, you’ll come back. Because this lab and places like it are something like home to you.”
She glanced at Junior, then at the door.
She wrestled with that for a lot longer than I’d anticipated she would. The silence stretched on.
“No?” I finally asked.
“If I say yes, and then come back…”
“It doesn’t mean anything,” I said.
“It means you were right about everything you just said,” she said.
But as she said it, she turned to go.
I didn’t stop her.
She would be back.
She grabbed a jacket from the peg by the door, a bag from the floor off to one side, and then closed the door behind her, looking as if a burden weighed on her.
“I consider myself a people person,” Junior said. “I’m good at figuring them out.”
“Sure,” I said. “Others have said you had talents in that area. I believe them.”
“I’ve known her for nearly a year, and I didn’t guess one tenth what you just did.”
“I read people, Junior. It’s part of what I do. A matter of survival.”
He didn’t reply to that, but he seemed to take it in and give it some consideration.
I then said, “With that in mind, I’m asking: do I need to worry about you?”
“I’ve agreed to play along.”
“Oh, I know,” I said. “But do I need to worry about you?”
“Well,” Junior said. He paused very deliberately. “The way I see it, I have three options.”
“You have far more than three options,” I said. I held up a finger. “Be careful. I know the little tricks.”
“I’m simplifying. Look, I can stop this particular enterprise, but then what? Go back to Beattle? I couldn’t deal with you when I had a shotgun in my hands and you wanted to keep me alive. There’s no number of locks I could put on my dorm room door that would keep me safe.”
“That’s a fair assessment,” I said. “Yes. You could give up just about everything. But you’re a clever guy. You could start fresh and manage.”
“Would be a miserable few years,” he said. “No. I’ve been building something, and that something is…”
He spread his hands.
I let him flounder, searching for an ending to the statement.
“…In a period of transition,” he decided.
“I do like that,” I said. “But keep in mind, because of what you’ve built, given the location, timing, and the resources tied into it, two people have set their sights on it, with intention of making that something into something bigger.”
“Which leaves me two options. You or my patron.”
“You have ill-will toward me, and only goodwill for her, though.”
“But I fear you,” he said. He chuckled. “That counts for something.”
Yeah, I thought. My gut feeling was right. He was of a type that could be disarming, play nice with just about anyone, and be convincing in the process.
It was in his interests to convince me that he’d side with me over Fray. Anything he said had to be taken with a grain of salt.
I drew in a deep breath, then sighed so he could hear it.
His expression shifted, a half-dozen tiny signs that suggested concern, a break in the easy confidence on his part, a confidence that he so easily handed over to others.
“I’ll ask you again. Do I need to worry about you?”
“You keep asking that.”
“Because you’re not answering honestly, R.J.,” I said. “You’re ducking around something big.”
The ease and humor in his expression faltered.
“You’re a smart guy. But you made a cardinal mistake. You use your own product,” I said.
I saw the realization on his face.
“If it was a stimulant, like some of the study drugs out there, then I’d expect your ups to be different. Either more up because you used recently. Or the ceiling would be lower, because tolerances have changed, even for the natural ups. Not a study drug to change brain structure either. Not in any way I’ve seen. But something. Likely something tying to your history with the Academy.”
Tying to your low rankings in the class listing, despite you being smart enough to do better.
“Like half of the students at Beattle, I came from somewhere better,” he said. “I came from Gallia Crown Academy. Competition was tighter, to put it lightly.”
To put it lightly. Like so much of New Amsterdam, the city’s universities, Gallia included, would be the top one percent. To be at the top of the classes there meant having to be the top ten percent of the top one percent.
“I took a gamble,” he said. “I lost.”
“What kind of gamble?”
He gave me a one-shoulder shrug. “Changed my pattern. The underlying structure that makes me who I am, that tells my cells how to grow, what to do. Another student told me they’d tweaked it so they didn’t need to sleep. They weren’t that convincing, but I felt trapped. I wanted to believe it, so I convinced myself.”
“You let them stick you with a needle, fundamentally changed your sleeping pattern, and it all fell apart.”
“We managed to do enough damage that any fixes do more damage. There’s no point to wrestling with the problem, because I might fix one thing and break another, and then have to adjust to the new reality. Better to dwell on dealing with it than to risk seeing more of the foundation crumble.”
“How do things stand now?” I asked. I was concerned it would interfere with him, me, and Fray tomorrow.
“I lose focus, go off rails, see things, and when it gets to be too bad, I dose myself to knock myself out. Six days of being awake, with functioning steadily dropping nearly as much as it would for anyone, then two days of drugged unconsciousness, one day of the hangover from hell.”
“You space out those doses as much as you can so you don’t build up too much tolerance.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Exactly that. If I have to turn to something stronger, which I will someday, then it’ll come at a cost.”
“How long ago did you sleep?”
“Three days ago. I’d say… I’m about as badly off as anyone who’d skipped one night of sleep. Not that I have any chance of nodding off.”
“But in focus, judgment, you still suffer.”
He gave me a nod. “It’s been this way for two years now. Handling this? I can do. Being a student?”
“Not much room for three day spans of unconsciousness. Do the others know?”
“He didn’t betray this particular detail, even under duress,” I said. “Which… neatly answers why I had my doubts about him and decided on using the impostor instead.”
“He should have betrayed me. We’re not that close,” Junior said.
“Either way, it’s starting to make sense. Why Fray picked you out in particular.”
The boy quirked an eyebrow.
“She has an in with various Academies, I’d guess. People who can keep an eye out for special cases. She collects the wounded and promises fixes. Has she promised you one?”
Junior shook his head.
“She will. Tomorrow… later today, now that I think about it, she’ll talk to you. She’ll tell you that she knows the right people, that she was almost a professor in a respected institution once. The only reason she wasn’t was that the position came with ties to local politics and more strenuous selection, and because she modified her own brain and it backfired.”
Junior raised his chin a fraction, taking that in.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’ll be something like that. And it sounds awfully good. She understands. She has the resources, and she has the willingness to help, which was the main thing you lacked. If you work with her, then your dreams will come true. You’ll be able to do this, but on a far greater scale. She’ll promise to fix your brain. And all of this? It’s true. Completely honest. Her background, the parallels to your own experience, the promise to fix your brain.”
I watched his expression change as I painted the picture.
“You’ll be able to go back to the Academy and finish without your sleepless brain dragging you down, but as part of the deal, you’ll be a double agent. Which suits you just fine. You’re here, doing this. You obviously don’t have an issue with doing shady work in the background.”
“But there’s a catch?” he asked.
“Hard to say,” I told him. “But she made the same offer to me. She made the offer to my friends. We didn’t accept.”
“Because the circumstances weren’t right. Other things were in play. Some offers sound too good to be true. Even so, if her timing had been better, we might have talked ourselves into it.”
I chose the same phrasing that Junior had given me as he’d described his self-modification.
“The thing to pay attention to,” I said, “Is the people she brings with her. The headsman, the massive fellow that follows her, does he say more than five words at a time, if he speaks at all? Is the stitched she keeps in her company free or happy? Does the woman with bird wings still look haunted?”
“She doesn’t fix the problems.”
“She likely will, after she does what needs to be done. But there will always be more to be done, R.J.”
“Jun, please,” Junior said, pronouncing it like ‘joon’. “Or Junior.”
“As you wish,” I said. “Point being, she’ll follow through. She’ll be genuine on a level, and her brilliant mind will likely be interested in following through in terms of sheer problem solving. Yet if you look at the people that have been with her the longest, who have been waiting for her to set aside the time to fix them? They’re still waiting. If you think for a moment, and rationalize that someone who collects the wounded as soldiers might find herself without an army if she’s too quick to mend…”
“I see what you mean,” he said.
I wasn’t being wholly genuine, but I needed to plant that seed of doubt. I was using the trick that I’d accused Junior of using earlier. To reduce an argument down to a narrow list of choices, and then answer those choices.
Is it A or B? Ignore the whole rest of the alphabet while you consider your answer.
The reality was, Fray’s collection of wounded that she kept close were the deeply wounded. The ones who would wrestle with the damage they had sustained and likely never find their way back to ‘normal’, even with the brilliant mind of a professor turned to the task.
Normal was overrated anyway.
The funny thing was, I doubted Junior had what it took to make his way into her inner circle, but for completely different reasons.
He was likely fixable.
“I’ve dealt with your like, Jun,” I said. “I am your like. It’s why she was willing and able to make the offer to me in the first place. I won’t promise you the whole world and make you wait years for the delivery. I can promise you that my world, which I’m inviting you into, is a world that would be a good fit for your strengths, and very accommodating of your weaknesses.”
I had broken through the veneer of easy congeniality. He’d chuckled and joked about how fearing me was better, but now…
I had him.
The way he looked at me, he knew I had him.
“Go home,” I said. “We’ll find you in a few hours, when we’re ready to get started.”
“Yeah,” he said. He looked a little dazed. The highs and lows. The momentary hope, the crash of reality, followed by my offer of my reality.
So many things were out of my hands. Arrows I’d loosed and trusted to fly straight. Boomerangs I’d thrown and trusted to return. But I couldn’t read all of the prevailing winds.
There was more to do. Then nap, grooming and more.
I walked around the lab, checked on the prisoners and guards, and spent five minutes standing watch over Leon while his guard stepped out to use the loo.
It was only in the later stage of the exploration that I found Jessie. She was sitting at the top of a flight of stairs, in the shadows, leaning against the wall. Fast asleep.
She stirred at my appearance, hand reaching for a weapon. Her eyes snapped open.
“Shh,” I said. “It’s fine.”
She smiled a little. Then, nearly as fast as she’d snapped awake, she slipped back under.
“We’re as set as we’ll ever be,” I murmured. I walked past her up the stairs, checked around, and found a throw-blanket. I checked it for bugs and grossness, deemed it good enough, and brought it over to Jessie.
The sleep she’d settled into was different than the one she had been in just a bit earlier. Utterly defenseless, this. Dead to the world, she barely stirred as I wrapped the blanket around her. I crouched in front of her, and I lifted the glasses off her face.
Drawing a clean handkerchief from my pocket, I cleaned the glasses of smudges, wrapped the clean ‘kerchief around them, then found her bag, and slid both glasses and kerchief into a protected pocket.
I was moving her braid so it wouldn’t tug if her head moved the wrong way when I sensed movement behind me.
“You’re back,” I said.
She glanced at Jessie.
“Too deep asleep now,” I said. “Nothing short of a stab wound would wake her. Not to worry.”
“I found the carpenter. He’ll be here within the hour. Disgruntled at the late night call, but the money helps.”
“You’re not going to braid her hair into the banister, are you?”
“No,” I said. “I’d never do something like that.”
“You do a lot of things like that,” Shirley said, teasing lightly.
My expression and tone were dead serious as I said, “Not while she’s asleep. I made Jamie and Jessie a promise long ago. That they would be safe while they were asleep. I wouldn’t betray that.”
“She’s sleeping a lot,” Shirley observed.
“Twelve to fourteen hours a day. Sometimes sixteen. When we’re done this job, it’ll be sixteen, to catch up,” I said. “She’s making do with less around jobs like this, so she can help me more. But she needs the memory consolidation she gets from sleep. She needs more than that.”
“I’m sorry,” Shirley said.
“We’ll make do,” I said. “We lean on each other’s strengths, accommodate each other’s weaknesses. For Jessie, that means letting her sleep for right now.”
“I talked to Pierre. He checked, the train is on time, and we have four hours,” Shirley said.
“Plus half an hour for quarantine procedure, half an hour for travel from the junction to here. Five hours until Fray arrives,” I said.
Five hours for the winds to change.
“Would it be too much imposition if I asked you to watch over things, keep in touch with Pierre? Keep an eye out for emergencies? For four or so hours?”
“I can. Can I ask why?”
I found a seat next to Jessie, and then moved the blanket, pulling it so it also draped over my back and shoulders.
“I see,” she said. She smiled. “I’ll scream if anything comes up.”
Shirley wasted no time in making her way back downstairs, giving us our space.
Still, I was nervous. One of the guards was a question mark, Fray was a question mark. Things could happen.
I did something I’d done thousands of times before, and I used Wyvern to adjust how my brain worked. As I’d done hundreds of times, I adjusted how it worked in respect to sleep. I used poisons and drugs to do something in that same realm that Junior had tampered with and suffered so much for. As I drifted off, I calibrated myself so my sleep would be a shallow one. The slightest thing would wake me up.
I settled in, my feet on the step below me, arms folded against my knees, head resting against my arms, blanket over top of it to keep some of the ambient light away.
Jessie moved her head, resting it against my shoulder.
Being half-asleep meant being woken up once every few minutes by creaks and noises from outside, but that was fine. Because being fully asleep was a me thing, while drifting in and out of this shallow sleep meant being beside my friend and ally. It was reassuring, the constant forgetting and remembering that she was here, that she had my back and I had hers.
I wouldn’t admit it out loud, but I felt insecure.
All of these pawns were in play and few were wholly in my control. I was playing a game I was less familiar with while a master sat on the other side of the board. My only advantage was that Fray didn’t know she was playing against me yet. I would give up that advantage soon, and I had to hope that we came out ahead in that particular transaction.